Module 14 Sections
For centuries, war was the defining feature of European politics. The Revolutionary War was just one of forty-two wars in the 18th century alone. Competition between European nations had fueled Spanish colonization of Central and South America, Dutch control of Indonesia, and repeated conflicts between France and Great Britain. The American struggle for independence from Great Britain was a major event in an ongoing struggle among the nations of Europe, and it prompted further wars between Britain and Spain for control of Gibraltar, Britain and the Netherlands for control of the seas, and even between Britain and the Indian Kingdom of Mysore for control in India.
The Framers knew that the Constitution needed to do more than establish the laws of the land; it needed to set the framework for who would have the authority to oversee America’s role in these international conflicts. While the Constitution dictates who can make foreign policy decisions, it offers no guidance on what those decisions should be.
For a brief description of the formal, constitutional authority given to Congress to make foreign policy decisions, listen to these podcasts from 60-Second Civics:
America’s role in the world for the past two-and-a-half centuries has been determined by the complex processes of politics, public opinion, territorial expansion, trade, immigration, and an ongoing debate about what America is and what it should be. Is it an empire? Is it a peaceable democracy? Should it be a police force for the world? Or should it just be a friendly neighbor? Different answers and approaches to these questions provide competing visions for American foreign policy.
Among the driving themes in the history of American foreign policy is the tension between isolation and intervention. Since the advice George Washington gave in his farewell address to avoid entanglements with other nations, many have felt that America would be best to keep to itself. In the twentieth century, however, America intervened in the politics and wars of nations around the world, from the Dominican Republic to Vietnam, and from Nicaragua to Korea. Extended conflicts like the Vietnam War frequently led to public backlash and increased support for isolationist policies. Major security threats like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, have led to widespread support for foreign intervention.
Foreign Policy and the Constitution
The federal government’s role in foreign affairs was a hot topic at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Articles of Confederation left many questions of commerce and security to the states, enabling foreign powers to exploit the differences. At the time of the Convention, there were still many foreign troops within the territory of the United States, and no unified vision of who represented the Confederation of States abroad. Despite the many differences between the large, small, northern, and southern states and differing opinions among the Federalists and Antifederalists, the Convention came to a consensus on questions of both commerce and security that ultimately satisfied each of the state ratification conventions.
In Article 1, Section 8, the Framers concentrated trade policy into the hands of Congress. The Constitution stipulated that Congress set a unified regime of tariffs and duties and oversee the setting of trade policies with other nations. Article 1, Section 10 expressly forbade the states from conducting independent commercial agreements, treaties, or alliances with foreign nations, or setting tariffs or duties different than those set by Congress. While this was initially controversial among those states that worried unequal representation would lead to national trade policies that benefited larger states or northern manufacturing over other important economic sectors, the states ultimately agreed that the power granted by national unity was more important.
Knowing that with the ratification of the Constitution, the new nation would be entering a world where war was more the norm than peace, the issue of how the United States should handle and approach matters of war and diplomacy was another issue of great concern at the Convention. The Framers knew that matters of high politics between nations were often best undertaken swiftly and in secrecy. But they also knew that war was a matter too weighty to be trusted to one branch of government alone. Ultimately, they gave Congress the power to declare war in Article 1, Section 8, but assigned to the President the role of commander-in-chief in Article 3 Section 2. The Constitution gave the President the power to direct the course of foreign policy in times of war and peace through the appointment of ambassadors, carrying out of negotiations, and establishment of treaties, with the stipulation that treaties were to be ratified by at least a two-thirds majority of the Senate.
The Constitution gave the majority of power in foreign policy to the executive branch, but stayed true to the doctrine of separation of powers. While this new framework delegated the powers of who could make which decisions, it did not determine what decisions should be made. These sorts of determinations have evolved throughout the history of the United States.
The New Nation Finds its Place in the World
The New Republic faced its first major foreign policy test in 1793. By that time, the French Revolution, which had begun in 1789, had sparked war throughout Continental Europe, and Great Britain had entered the conflict against the French. Washington knew the United States had to declare neutrality; choosing sides between Great Britain and France could be the new nation’s undoing. The terms of the neutrality, however, were complicated. While America had treaty obligations to France, it had an ongoing trade relationship with Great Britain, and the British maintained a military presence in America. A misstep in either direction could ignite devastating conflicts with either powerful nation.
Thomas Jefferson argued that the European conflict could be advantageous for the United States. He believed that if Americans gave preferential trading terms to the French, they would be fulfilling their 1783 treaty obligations, advancing republican ideals, opening up important continental markets for American goods, and weakening the economic ascendency of the British, which would diminish its capacity for future aggression against the young nation.
Alexander Hamilton disagreed, arguing instead for complete neutrality. While this would abrogate the terms of America’s 1783 treaty with the French, it would also forestall further conflict with the British. Washington agreed with Hamilton on the importance of preventing British aggression, but also with Jefferson on maintaining America’s 1783 alliance with France. The ensuing neutrality statement satisfied neither France nor Great Britain, leading to an attempt by France to tamper with American internal affairs and bringing Britain and the United States to the brink of war.
The disagreement between Hamilton and Jefferson deepened when Washington sent John Jay to negotiate with the British. Jay’s negotiations resulted in America’s first treaty under the new Constitution, which was ratified in 1794 by the slimmest of margins. While angering the French, the net effect of the treaty was to forestall conflict with the British until the United States was able, both politically and financially, to withstand it. In the more immediate sense, the Jay Treaty, as it had come to be known, saw the British agree to remove their remaining troops in the American northwest. Further, disputes over the American-Canadian border were addressed, and rules on trade were formalized.
Washington’s Farewell Address
The rift between Hamilton and Jefferson, the near war with Great Britain, and France’s attempt to interfere with American internal affairs all profoundly influenced George Washington. He believed that if Americans weren’t careful, European powers would use the new nation as a pawn in their own struggles for power. His 1796 Farewell Address addressed this problem. He urged Americans to avoid “entanglements” in the affairs of European powers, and focus instead on strengthening their nation until such a time when “none can make us afraid.”
You can read George Washington’s Farewell Address here:
This first episode in American foreign policy foreshadowed many themes and questions that would drive America’s interactions with the world over the next two hundred years. The central question was whether America should use trade policy to intervene in the affairs of Europe, or keep largely to itself. Intervention versus isolation is a recurring tension throughout American history. But the Jay Treaty illustrates that even when it would prefer a period of relative isolation, America must always consider its place in global politics.
Establishing Spheres of Influence: Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine
America’s leaders largely followed Washington’s advice, and it became a centerpiece of US foreign policy for the next hundred years. Aside from the war of 1812, which many consider to be the final resolution of the Revolutionary War, the United States had no major military conflicts with European powers until the Spanish-American war of 1898. Instead, the nation turned its attention inward, as the United States sought to expand its territorial control over the continent and its political influence throughout the Americas. Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was destined to spread across the whole of the North American continent, became a driving force in the nation’s politics. The Americans were also increasingly of a mind that European powers had no place in the New World.
Americans had never been fully satisfied by the borders agreed upon in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The original colonies had claimed that their territories extended west in perpetuity, though functionally, population rarely spread beyond the Appalachian Mountains until the early 19th century. Knowing that expansion was inevitable, the Framers empowered Congress to admit new States into the union, and the Northwest Ordinances of 1787 and 1789 established the pattern of how new territories would be incorporated into existing structures of government.
By 1803, the United States had doubled in size. The admissions of Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio had increased the number of states from thirteen to seventeen, and in July of that year, American diplomats finalized an agreement with Napoleon’s government to purchase all French territory in the New World for only $15 million. At a little less than three cents per acre, the Louisiana Purchase was one of the least expensive land acquisitions in history. The French agreed to the deal because Napoleon was waging costly wars throughout Europe, and with Britain waging intense economic warfare against the aggressive French regime, the Napoleonic government needed all the funding it could find. In the next twenty years, seven new states would be admitted to the Union, and new territories ceded from Great Britain and Spain.
In 1823, after reaching new levels of power and stability, America established its first formal foreign policy doctrine. In international relations, a “doctrine” is a guiding policy, perspective, or belief that a leader or nation adopts towards a particular problem or the international system. As Europe recovered from the Napoleonic wars, American leaders feared European nations would turn their attention to the New World once again. It was a result of this concern that President James Monroe established the founding doctrine of American foreign policy: that the New World was separate from the Old, and that the United States opposed all forms of European intervention in North, Central, and South America. Monroe made especially clear that the United States would not permit any further colonization by Old World powers in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine further affirmed American neutrality in continuing European conflicts.
Latin American leaders such as Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar appreciated the sentiments of the Monroe Doctrine when it was first declared. The United States’ relationship with these nations, however, became increasingly complicated over time. As the 19th century moved on, Americans continued to settle further and further west into territories that belonged to Mexico. Meanwhile, American idealism was growing, and discussion of America’s Manifest Destiny became increasingly more passionate. This led, in time, to atrocities such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which caused the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans. The United States’ expansion also led to war with Mexico in the 1840s. But after its 1848 victory in the Mexican-American war, America’s Manifest Destiny was achieved. The United States occupied the entire space between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Latin American nations became convinced that the Monroe Doctrine was merely a political tool in the hands of a burgeoning empire rather than a declaration of sovereignty for nations in the Americas.
Entanglements with European Powers
While the United States did not have the power to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, Great Britain stood behind the American proclamation and used its powerful navy to maintain the neutrality of the seas. The Monroe Doctrine was an important step in repairing Anglo-American relations, and led to the establishment of a “special relationship” between the two nations that survives, roughly intact, to this day. Ironically, it was new interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine, deliberately designed to keep America independent from European affairs, that would ultimately bring America back into military conflicts with European powers.
The biggest military conflict the United States encountered in the 19th century, however, was internal. The Civil War tested the limits of America’s core convictions, led to the end of slavery, and strengthened the power of the federal government in relation to the states, but Americans often overlook the role the Civil War played globally. Then Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, worried that if the Union wasn’t prudent in its diplomacy, instead of a Civil War, the United States would be facing a World War. While the Union and Confederacy fought in America, Germany and Italy were fighting for respective unification; war raged in Poland and Hungary; Napoleon III sent troops to Mexico; and the Taiping rebels threatened to dismantle the centuries-old Qing dynasty in China. If the European powers involved in these struggles entered America’s Civil War, these conflicts may have expanded into a global power struggle between Europe’s most powerful nations.
Involving foreign powers in the American conflict seemed preferable to the Confederates, who remained convinced that foreign reliance on Southern cotton would lead to foreign intervention on their side. At one point, the Confederacy flexed its economic muscles, embargoing cotton exports to Britain. The Confederacy also, however, completely misread the British political climate, sending as chief diplomat an ardent proponent of slavery whose frequent public defenses of the “peculiar institution” made his British counterparts take the Southern cause less seriously. In the end, and largely thanks to the efforts of Northern diplomats, Britain chose to maintain neutral throughout the war. While the British Parliament had debated the merits of intervention in America, the British ultimately decided to focus their efforts in East Asia, where they sent troops and supplies to support Qing China in suppressing its own concurrent civil war against the Taiping rebels.
While the period between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century is generally viewed as a period of isolation, it was actually a time of deepening connections between the United States and the rest of the world. Hundreds of thousands of people migrated to America from all over Europe. The United States opened diplomatic and trade relations with Japan, China, and Korea. It expanded its territory, gaining control of Hawaii and purchasing Alaska from Russia. Extensive industrialization, agriculture, and commerce brought the United States to global power status by the turn of the century, and the telegraph, railroad, and steamship reduced travel and communication time to fractions of what they had previously been. The late 19th century is commonly recognized as the first rush of globalization, and America played a key role in the process.
A newly unified Germany brought increased tension to the international system. European nations began to compete for technological supremacy and territorial expansion in Africa, which was more accessible due to medicinal advances that enabled Europeans to withstand the malaria endemic to the African continent. Russia continued an aggressive foreign policy, and Japan’s Meiji Restoration of 1868 led it to become East Asia’s first truly global power of the modern era. Americans paid close attention to the international world, but maintained favor for isolationist policies until 1898.
The United States had long considered continuation of territorial expansion into the Caribbean an enticing possibility. As Cuba began struggling for independence from Spain in the 1880s and 90s, many Americans believed the nation ought to step in to aid the Cubans. The Monroe Doctrine was used to argue for intervention on the basis of expelling European powers from the Americas. Further, the tide of public opinion began to swing away from isolation and toward intervention in Cuba.
When the Cuban struggle became violent in 1897, President William McKinley sent the USS Maine to Havana to protect American interests on the Island. On the evening of February 15, 1898 a massive explosion sank the Maine. Spain denied involvement, and some even suspected internal conspiracy from warmongering Americans, but the American people and government were convinced that it was an act of aggression on the part of the Spanish. With cries of “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!”, newspapers urged the nation forward, and the people clamored for war.
The Spanish-American war was brief, but significant. It lasted only from April to August of 1898, but signaled an important shift away from the isolationist attitudes of the post-Civil War era toward one of intervention. The 1898 Treaty of Paris set out the terms of the peace. The United States had defeated the Spanish easily, gaining territorial control over both Cuba in the Caribbean, and the Philippines in the Pacific. With this significant defeat, the centuries-old Spanish Empire crumbled, and a new willingness among American politicians to engage with European nations began.
From Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Paradoxes of Woodrow Wilson
Following the Spanish-American war, the tide of public opinion swung once again away from intervention, but not towards isolation. Policymakers focused on integrating America’s new holdings of Cuba and the Philippines, while citizens were concerned with expanding trade relations abroad. This was a time of unprecedented travel for Americans, and wherever they went, they spread their ideas and culture. Noting this trend, William Thomas Stead published The Americanization of the World, arguing therein that culturally, America had become one of the world’s most influential nations. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the nation began to focus on spreading good will abroad and strengthening international commercial relationships. Roosevelt led the first major expansion of the United States’ professional diplomatic corps, whose primary responsibility at the time was overseeing trade relationships.
Many at the dawn of the 20th century lauded the era as a time of unprecedented peace. Observant voices, however, warned that the ever-intensifying arms race among European powers would lead to catastrophe. President Roosevelt was an astute student of Great Power politics, and while praising the era’s focus on peace and prosperity, he also advocated the use of force when necessary. Roosevelt made a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, clarifying that the United States would intervene with force to mediate conflicts between European nations and American nations. Roosevelt argued that the world needed a moral policing agent, and that the United States was perfectly suited to that role.
The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was first used to justify intervention in 1905. Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti had incurred major debts to European powers, and were on the brink of default. France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands had threatened to intervene if the debts weren’t repaid. To prevent European activity in the New World, the Roosevelt administration assumed control of the customs houses on the island of Hispaniola. Justification for American action grew during the subsequent administration when William Howard Taft used “dollar diplomacy” to assume increased control over the finances of Latin American nations.
In 1914, the assassination of Duke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ignited the tensions that had been building in Europe ever since the unification of Germany at the end of the 19th century. All of Europe was quickly drawn into the most intense conflict it had yet seen. Americans were hesitant at first to join the war, but in 1917, Congress declared war on Germany and its allies and played an instrumental role in defeating the Axis powers, giving American President Woodrow Wilson a central role at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Wilson saw the Peace Conference as an opportunity to transform the world.
A champion of American exceptionalism, Wilson attempted to use the Conference to spread “enlightened” American ideals to the world. He drafted fourteen fundamental points which he believed could help establish a new, more stable world order. Central to these were the concepts of self-determination, sovereignty, and international law. To avoid future catastrophes like the Great War, he proposed establishing a world governing body called the League of Nations. The Conference, however, did not go as Wilson had hoped. Instead of moving past previous struggles and focusing on ideals, the European victors were eager to see the aggressors punished. Paradoxically, as Wilson pleaded with the Europeans to respect the rights of nations to self-determination, representatives from Haiti and the Dominican Republic also attended the conference. They petitioned Wilson to withdraw American troops from their territories, allowing them the same sovereignty Wilson was advocating for European nations. It wouldn’t be until after Wilson’s presidency that the United States ended its occupation of Latin American and Caribbean nations.
While Wilson was unable to persuade the victors to adapt all of his fundamental points, they did go forward with the creation of the League of Nations, albeit in a truncated form. Meanwhile, Wilson had become so unpopular at home that the Senate refused to ratify the treaty of accession to the League. The League was created, but its sponsoring nation failed to join.
From the 20s to WWII
Following the conclusion of World War I, Americans again grew skeptical of involvement in foreign affairs. No new conflicts started in the Roaring Twenties, though the United States maintained a military presence in Latin America and the Philippines. Instead, Americans focused on their booming agricultural and industrial markets. International trade flourished throughout the twenties, and many hoped, as before, that war was a thing of the past.
As the decade drew to a close, a few disturbing trends began to emerge. The European demand for American agricultural products greatly diminished as Europe recovered from the war. Poor farming practices were also leading to decreased yields. At the same time, investments in agriculture were at an all-time high. The stock market crashed at the close of the decade, and the Great Depression began. Exacerbating the problem, Congress moved to adopt the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, stunting international trade and closing off American markets to the world.
The 1930s were a time of intense isolation for the United States. Trade was low. The 1933 Clark Memorandum officially ended the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt’s Corollary to it, and Dollar Diplomacy. The US withdrew from Latin America and the Philippines, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted the Good Neighbor Policy, reversing years of intervention by the United States in the affairs of other North, South, and Central American nations. Instead, America focused inward as FDR pushed forward his New Deal progressive economic policies in an attempt to bring America out of economic depression.
While America focused inward, there were renewed conflicts internationally. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, created the puppet nation of Manchukuo, and threatened military action against the rest of China. Under Adolf Hitler, the German economy recovered from the depression of the Weimar period and became increasingly aggressive, annexing Austria in 1938. As Germany moved to abrogate the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia, other European powers became increasingly concerned.
In September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and within a few days, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa declared war on Germany. World War II was officially underway.
As East Asia and Europe descended into war, the United States tried to maintain its isolation through neutrality. A series of lend-lease agreements with Britain, France, and China gave those nations access to American goods to aid their war efforts, but it would take a monumental event to cause the United States to enter the war. That monumental event came on December 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese warplanes launched a surprise attack on the American military base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing thousands and angering the nation. The very next day, President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, which passed with just one dissenting vote.
With its entry into the war, America was caught in a protracted, global struggle. The United States focused on two fronts: the first in Europe, and the second in the Pacific. By the time all Axis powers had surrendered in late 1945, Japan had been at war for sixteen years, Europe for six, and America for four. The war was devastating, and it profoundly changed the structure of international politics, leaving traditionally powerful nations like Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan in ruin.
Harry Truman, FDR’s Vice President, took over when his predecessor suffered a stroke and died on April 12, 1945. Beginning in 1948, on the advice of Secretary of State George Marshall, Truman instituted a program to aid Europe’s economic recovery from the war. Known as the Marshall Plan, the program granted large subsidies to governments in Western Europe in an effort to rebuild their economies in the wake of World War II. The plan was heavily criticized by free-market economists Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises, among others. Hazlitt argued that real economic growth came from savings and investments, while Mises argued that the money allowed various European countries to “conceal partially the disastrous effects of the various socialist measures they [had] adopted.”
While the Marshall Plan was only operative for four years, more than $12 billion (more than $120 billion in 2016 dollars) was given to European nations to rebuild. In the decades that have followed, countries around the world have received money, food, and supplies from the United States under similar plans.
The New International System
As the outcome of the war became apparent, leaders of the allied nations sought to create a framework for international politics in the post-war world. Roosevelt, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met twice before the war ended, at the Potsdam and Yalta Conferences, where they discussed strategies for winning the war and determined the process by which the post-war world would be designed. They discussed replacing the broken League of Nations with a more powerful institution, how to deal with surrendered nations, and the process of post-war reconstruction. One of the largest disagreements was what to do with Germany, which had been the aggressor in both of the century’s major wars. Ultimately they decided to split the nation into Eastern and Western Germany, partitioning the capital, Berlin, into four sectors, one governed by each of the four victor nations, Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Allies also established a series of international institutions such as the United Nations (UN), World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF), all of which were designed to enhance diplomatic and economic ties between nations.
As the international climate settled, the extent of the devastation in Western Europe and Japan became apparent. World War II had decimated the economic and military capacities of many of the world’s strongest nations, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the world’s two most powerful states. And they were quickly at odds. Americans had distrusted the Soviets ever since the 1917 Communist Revolution. Indeed, the United States had not even recognized the legitimacy of the Soviet government until FDR’s presidency. The Soviets equally distrusted the Americans. Ever wary of the vulnerability of their vast borders, they quickly moved to secure areas of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As tensions grew, many feared that the world would enter a new, longer struggle between America and the Soviet Union for global supremacy.
America read the Soviet Union’s actions as aggression, and as the Soviets moved to occupy East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and other Eastern European nations, the United States developed its first post-war foreign policy doctrine. President Truman announced in March of 1947 that the United States would financially support military groups in Greece and Turkey fighting against Soviet-backed communist movements. In July of that year Foreign Affairs magazine published what became known as the Long Telegram, a diplomatic correspondence drafted by George Kennan, an American diplomat and Soviet expert. Kennan warned of the danger of the spread of communist ideology, and predicted that the Soviets would attempt to exert influence beyond Europe and Central Asia. This was also a period of decolonization, and peoples living in European holdings throughout Africa and Asia were gaining independence. Kennan worried that without precautions, the Soviets would attempt to establish puppet communist regimes in these former colonies. Kennan advocated “containment,” a strategy that would extend the Truman Doctrine beyond Greece and Turkey. Essentially, containment advocates viewed Soviet ideology as a contagious disease that would spread naturally if not quarantined by force. The containment mentality would guide American foreign policy for the next thirty years.
You can read Kennen’s Long Telegram here:
Most historians agree that Soviet aggression, the Truman Doctrine, and introduction of the containment strategy in 1947 mark the beginning of the Cold War. American foreign policy in the period between 1947 and 1989 was defined by its struggle against the Soviet Union, which at the time was interpreted as a global struggle against communism. The war is called “cold” because despite incredibly high tensions between the Americans and the Soviets and many proxy struggles, no direct conflicts ever broke out between the two states. The ideological nature of the Cold War made this period a high point for American idealism and expressions of American exceptionalism.
The Cold War through Vietnam
In the Cold War, the pendulum of America’s attitudes swung far from isolationism toward the “foreign entanglements” and interventions the United States had long avoided. Diplomatically, America and its allies established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—a mutual defense treaty signed in April of 1949 which was comprised of nations on both sides of the Atlantic. Western European nations went further, integrating their economies through the European Coal and Steel Community, which laid the foundations for the modern European Union. In retaliation, the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Pact, a mirror organization for Eastern European and Central Asian nations. In former colonies and East Asia, it seemed the spread of communism was inevitable. Mao Zedong and his “People’s Liberation Army” conquered China’s Nationalist military commanded by Chiang Kai-Shek. Newly independent India was rife with communist factions, and its leaders seemed to have significant communist sympathies. Communist forces under Kim Il-sung were stabilizing their power around Pyongyang in northern Korea and pushing south. Rebel factions in Vietnam fighting against French colonial forces were increasingly rallying around the Vietnamese communist Ho Chi Minh. Globally, it seemed as though without American intervention, communism would prevail and eventually spread, perhaps even to the United States.
Until this point, American nuclear capabilities prevented the Soviets from acting too aggressively. If war did break out, American weaponry would enable the United States to inflict tremendous destruction. But in August of 1949, everything changed with the successful testing of RDS-1, the Soviets’ first atomic bomb. RDS-1 had the same destructive capacity as the bombs the United States had used against Japan, and its development came as a surprise to Americans, who had mistakenly predicted that Soviets would not fully develop nuclear capabilities until at least 1953. This instigated an arms and technology race between the two great powers, and established the logic that kept the Cold War “cold.” As both nations tested more and more weapons, flexing their nuclear muscles, they became increasingly aware that if any direct conflicts broke out between them they would face mutually assured destruction (MAD). MAD is the central reason why direct violent conflict never erupted between the United States and Soviet Union.
Instead of direct conflict, the action of the Cold War happened through proxy wars. The first of these began when communist rebels in northern Korea pushed south in 1950 and the UN (absent the Soviet Union) voted to defend the southern Koreans. The majority of UN assistance came in the form of American troops and supplies. Not long after the Americans started to assist the southern Koreans, China declared war and sent troops and assistance to Kim Il-sung and his forces. The Soviet Union indirectly sent support and military aid through China. The conflict lasted for three years until the declaration of an armistice in 1953. A border was established and the nations of North and South Korea were formed on either side, but there was no formal peace treaty to end the war. Technically, the two nations are still at war, though the armistice has lasted for over sixty years.
As the presidency transitioned from Harry Truman to Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, tensions between the United States and Soviet Union were on the rise. Eisenhower entered office hoping that “peace in our time” was achievable. As the Soviets continued testing more nuclear weapons, however, tensions grew. In the early 1950s, advocates of containment began articulating the Domino Theory, arguing metaphorically that each nation that fell to communism would knock down the nations at its borders. This point of view led Eisenhower to approve aid to the French and South Vietnamese against the communist North Vietnamese rebels. Part way through his presidency, Eisenhower articulated his own foreign policy doctrine. An extension of Truman Doctrine, the Eisenhower Doctrine declared that the United States would use military force to maintain the regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere from falling like dominos to international communist movements. Ironically, the Eisenhower Doctrine led to American support for brutal regimes worldwide. Many dictators, like Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, became decisively anti-communist in order to win American support.
One of the most worrisome movements to the United States was Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. In the mid-1950s, the Eisenhower regime began supplying both conventional and chemical weapons to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. But Castro’s guerilla tactics and perseverance were ultimately successful. As the Batista regime floundered, America withdrew its military aid, and in 1959 Castro’s forces were victorious. To this point, Castro and his fellow revolutionaries had espoused socialism, and on a visit to the United States in 1959, Castro tried to assuage American fears by declaring that his movement was avowedly not communist. Despite this declaration, the Castro government nationalized many industries and passed communist-style land reforms. After nationalizing American-owned oil refineries without compensation in 1960, Congress took retaliatory action against the Castro regime by passing a full trade embargo. This drove the Cuban leader to deepen relations with the Soviet Union, and ultimately to espouse communism openly.
John F. Kennedy won the presidential election of 1960 and entered office in early 1961. In its last years, the Eisenhower regime had planned an elaborate overthrow of the Castro regime, and one of Kennedy’s first foreign policy decisions was to enact those plans. In his first month in office, Kennedy ordered what became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) armed 1,500 disaffected Cubans and transported them to the island under the faulty assumption that there was widespread dissatisfaction with the Castro regime, and that more Cubans would join the brigade in overthrowing it. The Kennedy administration decided to provide no air support. In two days, the Cuban government had either captured or killed each of the 1,500 men.
The Bay of Pigs set the stage for one of the most dangerous events of the Cold War. American aggression against the Castro regime inspired Cuba to turn to the Soviet Union for defense. In April of 1962, America discovered the construction of ballistic missile sites on the island. Given Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union, the National Security Council determined that the purpose of the sites was to pose a direct nuclear threat to the United States just 90 miles south of Miami, Florida. After much internal debate regarding America’s correct response, Kennedy chose to enforce a naval blockade of the island. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to order Soviet ships carrying nuclear weapons to turn around in exchange for the American removal of nuclear sites in Greece and Turkey. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a victory for peaceful diplomacy and greatly improved Kennedy’s image after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But it had brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had ever been.
This was followed in 1963 with the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, in which the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain all agreed to end aboveground testing of nuclear weapons. While the Soviets did violate the treaty once in 1965, it was the first successful step in decreasing nuclear tensions. Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963 left his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at the head of the nation. One of Johnson’s greatest legacies would be intensifying America’s protracted military involvement in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War through Nixon
American involvement in Vietnam began in the early 1950s, but the nation played a largely advisory role until 1964, when a disputed attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin changed matters. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which approved presidential use of military force in Vietnam was the result. Importantly, Congress did not officially declare war on North Vietnam in authorizing the President to act militarily. This set a precedent for American military action that continues to this day. Indeed, the last time Congress issued a declaration of war was in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War Two. Because the War Clause is one of the few in the Constitution to give foreign policy powers to Congress, this trend, which has continued throughout the 20th century, has placed increasing power in the hands of the executive branch to conduct foreign policy independent of Congress.
It was the logic of containment that justified congressional authorization of military force in Vietnam. The American worldview at the time saw communism as an international force, and Americans believed that communist nations were aligned under a single agenda. Americans interpreted limited Chinese aid to the North Vietnamese as originating from the Soviets, and envisioned the Soviet Union as the primary driver between Chinese, North Korean, Cuban, and North Vietnamese politics. In many respects, the Vietnam War demonstrates the limits of the worldview originating from Kennan’s Long Telegram ten years earlier. Americans were largely blind to worsening relations between China and the Soviet Union, and false reports left Americans overestimating the economic strength of both nations.
In 1968, the Johnson regime launched the infamous Tet Offensive, bringing the troop count in Vietnam to an all-time high of 550,000 American soldiers. Public opinion turned significantly against the war in Vietnam. Many protests on college campuses turned violent, and veterans returning from the war faced open hostility for their involvement in the conflict. American strategy in Vietnam was one of overwhelming force. Uses of napalm, Agent Orange, and indiscriminate bombing led to sharp criticisms internationally and at home of war crimes and human rights violations. At the height of the war, President Johnson’s popularity declined sharply, with protesters on the streets shouting, “Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” The tide of American opinion turned solidly against war, swinging once again away from foreign entanglements.
The Vietnam conflict played a central role in the 1968 election. It seemed to many that America would have to surrender. Richard Nixon campaigned with the promise of “peace with honor,” ultimately winning the election and entering the White House in early 1969. Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ultimately succeeded in withdrawing American troops in 1973 through the “Vietnamization” of the war. By training South Vietnamese troops to replace American soldiers, they were able to withdraw the American military without surrendering. Two years later, however, the North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed the South Vietnamese, reuniting Vietnam under communist rule.
As he was slowly withdrawing troops from Vietnam, Nixon turned his attention to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Relations between the Soviet Union and China had been steadily worsening since 1960, and this was finally becoming apparent to American leadership. When Mao Zedong declared the PRC in 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces hadn’t been completely defeated. Instead, they had fled to the island of Taiwan just off the coast of China’s Fujian Province where they established the Republic of China. Both governments claimed legitimacy. For many years the international community refused to recognize Mao’s government, giving China’s seat in the United Nations to Chiang Kai-Shek’s government. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, nations began to recognize the legitimacy of the communist government. The United States finally recognized the PRC under Nixon, who was the first President to establish diplomatic relations with Mao’s government. In an unprecedented move, Nixon himself visited China in 1972.
Nixon’s presidency became the high point of a period of détente, an easing of strained relations, during the Cold War. This period lasted roughly from the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the beginning of the Reagan administration. In addition to ending the Vietnam War and opening diplomatic relations with China, Nixon led a series of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in which the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. After Nixon’s 1974 resignation following the Watergate Scandal, his Vice President Gerald Ford assumed the office, largely continuing the foreign policy strategies and doctrines established by Nixon, even visiting China again in 1975. Détente policies reflected a return of America’s desire to be isolated from world events. After the Vietnam War, Americans were not eager for more proxy wars.
The End of the Cold War
As Jimmy Carter replaced Gerald Ford in the Oval Office in 1977, the Middle East took center foreign policy stage. The American-backed Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran crumbled under revolutionary forces in 1979, replaced by the radical theocratic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini’s anti-American policies led to a raid of the United States’ Embassy in Tehran, and the taking hostage of fifty-two American diplomats and citizens for 444 days. The hostage crisis evoked much criticism of the Carter regime both at home and abroad. The hostages were finally released to safety in the very last month of his presidency, January 1981. While Americans were focusing on the hostage situation, the CIA and White House were concerned with Soviet Expansion in Central Asia. To forestall a Soviet takeover of Afghanistan, a crucial passage between Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, the Carter Administration authorized the arming of a group of Afghan rebels led by a Saudi proponent of radical Islam named Osama bin Laden. The rebel forces were ultimately victorious, and after twenty years of civil war they would go on to establish the Taliban government in 1996.
Ronald Reagan, the final president of the Cold War era, ended the period of détente by increasing military spending and undertaking a rhetorical campaign against the Soviet Union specifically, and communism generally. Reagan revived the language of American exceptionalism, calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” He also returned to the containment policies of the Truman, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Johnson administrations, promising to “rollback” communism wherever it appeared. He continued the Carter policy of arming rebel groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even invaded the small Caribbean nation of Grenada to prevent the election of a pro-communist government.
You can watch an excerpt of President Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech here:
You can see the entire speech here:
During the first years of Reagan’s administration, the Soviet Union faced a leadership crisis. Soviet politics finally stabilized with the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as Premier of the Soviet Union in 1985. With the Soviet economy floundering, and facing an increasingly difficult international environment brought about by the policies of Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, Gorbachev moved towards compromise and reform. He introduced two major policies in 1986, “glasnost” and “perestroika,” meaning opening and restructuring respectively. Recognizing the impact of this change in leadership, Reagan moved to more diplomatic tactics.
By 1987, President Reagan called upon the Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
You can see a portion of that speech here:
You can see the entire speech here:
Reagan pushed Gorbachev to accept further arms reduction agreements, and argued that peace would be impossible while the Soviet government continued to espouse communism as a governing philosophy. The Soviets responded. Reagan himself visited the Soviet Union in 1988 for a final arms reduction summit. He was even invited by Gorbachev to lecture on free market economics, and saw fit to rescind his judgment that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” saying that those words applied to another era of Soviet politics. In November of 1989, ten months after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was, in fact, torn down. One month after that, the Soviet Union was officially disbanded, replaced by the Russian Federation and multiple, newly autonomous states on Russia’s periphery.
The End of History?
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, international politics transitioned from a bipolar structure with two opposed superpowers to a unipolar world, with the United States as the only superpower. To many, this signaled a victory for American-style liberal democracy against alternative forms of governance. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that it signaled an “end of history,” and that liberal democracy and free markets were the final stage in the development of human government. Others like Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, however, argued that despite America’s “unipolar moment,” there was a “clash of civilizations” on the horizon as Eastern cultural powers began to gain economic and military strength.
The presidencies of George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993 and Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001 were marked by increased international economic integration and a few brief military engagements. Both presidents worked to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was signed during the Clinton administration and greatly increased trade between the three signatories: Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Meanwhile, the United States started to become a sort of international military police force. When Iraqi Prime Minister Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Bush administration quickly reacted with a swift military engagement that pushed Hussein’s forces back into Iraq, and maintained Kuwait’s independence. During the Bush and Clinton administrations, the United States also had brief military engagements in Panama and the Balkans. It was in this atmosphere that George W. Bush, son of George H.W. Bush, took office in early 2001. America’s role, it seemed, was to maintain the international peace.
All of this changed on the morning of September 11, 2001 when America experienced the first attack on its continental homeland since the war of 1812. Two airplanes crashed into the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the American military, and a fourth was brought down by passengers in Pennsylvania. The nation was plunged into an immediate crisis. All airplanes were grounded, and the president was transported to a secure location. In this state of emergency, it slowly became clear that the attack had been orchestrated by a newly founded global organization called al-Qaeda, “the base” or “foundation.” Al-Qaeda’s leader was the very same Osama bin Laden whom America had armed twenty years earlier to fight against the Soviets. After that fight ended, bin Laden formed al-Qaeda based on the networks he established in Afghanistan as the “base” from which to wage an international holy war against Western nations.
The War on Terror
The 9/11 attacks were quickly declared acts of terrorism, which is a political tool that has been used for centuries by small groups against more powerful forces. By orchestrating one-time brutal attacks, terrorists attempt to manipulate governments into giving into their demands. Nineteen days after the attack, President Bush declared a Global War on Terror. A few weeks after that, in early October of 2001, the United States and a coalition of NATO forces launched an invasion of Afghanistan where the Taliban had been hosting Osama bin Laden, and serving as the center of his al-Qaeda network.
The invasion of Afghanistan was rushed, and there was little focus on a long-term strategy for dealing with a new political reality. Americans had become accustomed in the previous ten years to short, small-scale military engagements, and while the Taliban and bin Laden were quickly pushed from power, they were able to hide in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. Coalition efforts to destroy them proved futile. Two years into the engagement, the Bush Administration’s attention shifted from the ongoing war in Afghanistan to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
The Bush Administration argued to the international community that they had evidence that Hussein’s regime was supplying Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) to terrorist organizations. While many nations remained skeptical, the United Kingdom and thirty-seven other nations joined the United States in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which was intended to be another brief military engagement to oust the Hussein regime and ensure that no WMDs would be transferred into the hands of terrorists. Insurgencies quickly developed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, sucking America into an unpopular and extended war. During his second term, President George W. Bush experienced the lowest approval ratings of any president in American history, while Americans became increasingly skeptical of American international military efforts.
Barack Obama succeeded President Bush in the White House, largely because of his campaign promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Obama completely withdrew American troops from Iraq in December of 2011, American troops remained in Afghanistan throughout his presidency under the auspices of NATO. In response to the incredible growth of the Chinese economy and its increasing military investments and hostilities towards its maritime neighbors, the Obama administration introduced a “pivot to Asia” in 2012, and since then has attempted to shift foreign policy dialogue away from the Middle East and towards East Asian politics.
By 2015, however, the rise of the Islamic State led to the reintroduction of American troops in Iraq. By 2016, those troops numbered nearly 5,000, well short of the more than 170,000 on the ground during the height of American involvement.
From its independence and war with Britain in the late eighteenth century to the Middle East wars of the twenty-first, foreign policy has played a vital role in American politics. In that time, the United States has grown from a relatively small former colony to a global superpower. Through it all, the themes of isolation, interventionism, and American exceptionalism have taken turns as the driving force in a changing world.
Even as rising economies and new technologies change the shape of international political discourse, these themes remain deeply tied to American perspectives on global politics, and we should expect to see them holding sway, cyclically, in the future.
For a summary description of American Foreign policy in today’s complex world, watch the following:
For a brief overview of why many believe an isolationist stance for the United States is no longer possible, listen to the following from 60-Second Civics:
- Foreign Policy
- Manifest Destiny
- Monroe Doctrine
- League of Nations
- United Nations
- Cold War
- War on Terror